Manisha Pandit, creator of the popular food blog Indian Food Rocks, is a master behind the stove and camera lens. In her monthly column, she shares Indian recipes and cooking techniques that are as pleasurable to see as they are to swallow.
Today, Manisha celebrates Diwali with karanji, sweet half-moon pastries filled with a cardamom-scented shredded coconut mixture.
It's that time of year when the new moon has special significance for millions of people the world over. They place terracotta oil lamps called diyas outside their homes to light up the dark night. They have festive lanterns hanging in their windows. Every so often, there might be a wild burst of cracklings, hissings, poppings -- sounds of fireworks. Mixed into the air, thick with sulfuric fumes, is the aroma of celebratory foods, mostly fried sugary treats or milk-based delights. Yes, it's Diwali, the festival of lights and that special new moon falls on this day, November 13, this year.
Diwali is a five-day festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and joy over sadness. It is about family and friends, giving and sharing. There is a noticeable aura of optimism that is very infectious. There is much that can be said for collective positive energy!
I try to keep our Diwali traditions simple. I make both sweet and savory treats that I share with friends either by inviting them to a little party at my home or as care packages. I usually make chivda, chakli, and chavde. This year, I had a yearning for these delicate half moon-shaped crispy shells that are filled with a sweet coconut mixture called karanji (kuh-run-gee).
Karanji can be sweet or savory, depending on the stuffing. The outer pastry shell can be thick or thin, but always crisp. If sweet, the filling almost always has coconut, either fresh or dessicated. The sweetener can be sugar or jaggery. I was always partial to the one made with fresh coconut and sugar, wrapped in a crisp, thin shell that melted in my mouth as I sank my teeth into it. To me, karanji was an integral part of Diwali. There were only two women who could make it just right in my eyes: my mother and her sister. I never knew whose karanji were better, and in the quest of sealing that decision, I always asked for another one. I was, therefore, incredibly happy when I was able to make karanji that were almost as good as theirs.
When making the dough for karanji, resist the urge to add salt to it. Knead it well and allow it to rest. Rolling out the dough into thin circles takes some practice. An alternative is to roll out the dough as much as you can on your kitchen counter and cut out three-inch circles using a cookie cutter (or even a lid).
Also, resist the urge to fry the karanji as you make them. They must be sealed firmly and the outer shell must be allowed to dry out a little. If you fry them right away, the karanji will absorb a lot more oil and the color of the outer shell will turn dark quickly. What you want to aim for is a crispy outer shell that has a pale golden color. Another tip: Do not splurge on whole cashews as cashew pieces will do, and make sure they are unsalted.
Making the sugar syrup is often a daunting task for those who have not made it before. The good thing about the thread stage is that it is forgiving. I thought I would use a candy thermometer, but that went south very quickly and I had to stick to the method that women in India use even today: their hands and eyes. If there is more water in your sugar syrup than necessary, you will notice it right away when you cook the coconut mixture. Simply cook the mixture longer until the extra moisture has evaporated.
I also use the ad-hoc method of testing the oil to ensure that it is ready to be used: Drop a tiny ball of dough into the oil. If the oil is hot enough, it will rise to the top right away. If you use a fryer, I would peg that temperature at about 350 degrees F.
It was a joy to make these sweet half-moons of delight after many years. They are slightly labor intensive, but the pleasures they bring are manyfold. I saw it with my own eyes when I saw my teen hunched over the kitchen sink, contentment hugging her slight frame with every bite of the karanji I had just made.
From my home to yours, I wish you a very happy Diwali!
1 cup frozen shredded coconut, thawed (about half a 34oz packet)
1/2 cup semolina
1/2 teaspoon ghee, to roast semolina
1/8 cup sesame seeds, toasted
1/8 cup unsalted cashew nut pieces, chopped small
5-6 green cardamoms
1 cup sugar
1 cup water (to make sugar syrup)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ghee, warmed and melted
1/2 cup warm water, to knead dough
Cooking oil, to deep-fry
Like this post? See Manisha's previous topic: Green Tomatoes Bhaji.
Photos by Manisha Pandit.
Manisha writes the food blog Indian Food Rocks, spiced with eclectic Indian food and entertaining anecdotes.